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these funny idioms French people use # 013

September 21, 2010
We don’t say Children are what they are made, but Dogs don’t make cats [Les chiens ne font pas des chats].
Interestingly there is actually at least three English idioms that translate this idea. More or less. The most often you will find the proposed translation to be the one I mentioned at the beginning, and that’s why I reported it. But actually I had never heard it before. What I had in mind when I started looking was The apple never falls far from the tree. And while looking I had been reminded of Like mother, like daughter.
So I am mot entirely happy with the first translation. Or I am just biased because I built up a strong association between the French and the English idioms across time, even if potentially not fully relevant. Anyway the point is that I feel like the Children are what they are made implies much more nurture. The basic idea is still the same, you are never very different from your parents, but to me the French idiom is much more about nature and innatism. I mean, dogs don’t make cats because they can’t, not because they choose not to educate them as such. You have more of this side of the inevitable familial heritage in Like mother, like daughter, but then I have a feminist/egalitarian coquetterie. Correct me if I am wrong but it seems to me that you never hear people saying Like father, like daughter, or Like mother, like son. At least I have never heard it. Well, technically, whether you go for nature or nurture, you can take from both sides. Maybe also Like mother, like daughter is not the most accurate translation because it is actually too much nature. If girls only take from their mother and sons from their fathers, it implies that so-called gender characteristics are innate. And I am not exactly ready to accept such a claim. No matter which influence the level of your intrauterine shot of testosterone has on your preferences for dolls vs. toy guns, I believe you still can transmit to your child that they can like/do whatever they want, there is no obligation and no ban. That won’t make him/her less a boy or less a girl, unless s/he want to and that’s fine too. Anyway, I am digressing here.
Point is, Like mother, like daughter/Like father, like son might be too specific to translate that Dogs don’t make cats, and Children are what they are made is too much about nature (I just put my finger on why: the passive form). In The apple never falls far from the tree, it is true that the parents have less to do here than the child herself/himself, but you know, you’ve got to give up on some semantics anyway when you translate. The sad story of my life in two languages.
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